Everyone makes branding mistakes; companies large or small. Some of these mistakes aren’t serious – more in the nature of learning curves – but others should never have happened at all.
It’s not only newbies who mess up their branding on a large scale. Let’s look at some spectacular branding mistakes – and learn what not to do!
1. If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It
Take the unfortunate example of the University of California…
In December, 2010, a decision was made to design a new logo. The existing one hadn’t been replaced since first designed 144 years earlier.
The old logo (left) reflected the long history and tradition of the institution and what it once stood for. Its motto, “let there be light”, did a good job of portraying the university as a place of enlightened wisdom. The date, 1868, demonstrated clearly its well-established tradition, reputation and credibility. The book also was a symbol of learning, and the star (as the point of a triangle – the strongest-known design element) focused all attention on book, motto and date of inception.
But there were problems: The original template was so worn, it no longer registered properly. And the powers-that-be decided it did not reproduce well digitally – one of the biggest considerations in deciding to scrap 144 years of tradition.
The result was a storm of protest – and grief. Students, alumni and staff for the most part loved the old logo. It stirred emotions and affronted pride. It was familiar. People were engaged and bonded to it (one of the hallmarks of a successful piece of branding.)
And the new one, the most vocal complaints insisted, was a poor replacement.
The powers-that-be called the new design (right) “minimalist”. The majority of the 37,000-plus protesters who signed an online petition and the 50,000 who signed a Facebook equivalent retorted that “the new one looks like a logo from a bad online university.”
In other words, in the eyes of the petitioners, the new logo in no way reflected the institution they loved and revered.
Four days later, senior vice president, Daniel M. Dooley announced: “I have instructed the communications team to suspend further use of the monogram”, insisting that the new logo would not have replaced the old one’s use as a seal on diplomas (one major concern of the protestors) but nevertheless threatening to “re-evaluate” the decision in the future.
No matter how modern and “clean” the new design, “minimalist” is too kind a description. The university really did throw the baby out with the bathwater and its replacement was not well-designed, and above all, not reflective of the University’s mission, history or tradition – in the petitioners’ words, its “stature and honor”.
- Ignoring an active and much-loved tradition
- Ignoring its strongest brand values
- Ignoring staff, student and alumni emotional involvement with the old logo
2. More Tradition Tampering
You may find it either surprising, shocking or strangely heartening that cultural icon and sales giant, Coca-Cola got tripped up by treading on tradition.
1985 saw its largest launch in years – the much-heralded “New Coke”.
It tried to sell the “New Coke” as “smoother, rounder yet bolder” but its positioning fell on deaf ears. North American emotions ranged from annoyance to outrage.
And hardly anyone bought the “New Coke”.
Yes, they tested their new formula – but the percentage who seemed actually angry at the proposed change were dismissed. The company was too busy focusing on (a) their upcoming Centenary (b) their rivalry with Pepsi.
The one thing they did right was attempt to tie the change to a significant event (the Centenary). But they made assumptions that the vocal minority would “get over it” – and they didn’t.
Instead, they became the suddenly-vocal majority.
It wasn’t until people were selling black-market cases of “Classic” Coke (the company’s concession to what it thought was going to be a small group of die-hards) that Coca Cola apparently noticed “New Coke” sales were dismal.
They went back to their original formula.
Again, the mistakes were:
- Failing to realize their product constituted an American icon – and staple
- Failing to realize people’s emotional investment (a.k.a. addiction) to the original formula
- Messing with a product that was regularly and repetitively bringing them in millions of dollars
- Focusing on their main competitor, instead of on their customers
3. Overlooking the Obvious
Meanwhile, millionaire Richard Branson, creator and owner of Virgin records and addict of outrageous publicity stunts, once got so cocky he attempted to take on both Coca Cola and Pepsi.
The optimistic visionary saw his new cola-based soda as the third member of what would become a trinity. To this end, he spent a fortune developing and promoting it.
His reasoning was not uninformed: He had experienced great success moving into gaps before, and his product was carefully tested, well accepted – and almost 20 cents cheaper than his megalithic rivals.
In spite such promotional tactics as firing at Coca-Cola’s massive billboard in New York Times Square from a Sherman tank, however, the Virgin cola never took off: Not because of poor branding, but because his two gigantic rivals simply ganged up and blocked distribution of his cola drink across North America.
Most people, as a result, never got to see a can of Virgin cola, let alone buy it.
- Underestimating the competition
- Overlooking possible legal strategies to shoot down his market assault
- Banking on past patterns of success without analyzing the differences in this particular scenario
- Thinking he could accomplish by money and branding a corner in a market that was firmly closed to competition
4. Playing It Too Safe
General Motors actually made the opposite mistake to the University of California when it decided to rebrand its Oldsmobile line in the late 1990s. It needed a re-brand but, conscious of a tradition that began in the 1920s, decided to “play it safe” and went for “uniformity”.
They neglected to consider their competition – all busy putting out dazzling new designs. And they forgot the basic branding law of standing out from the crowd.
In spite of snazzy new names like “Intrigue”, the new Oldsmobile looked generic and respectable.
However, its biggest market had all grown old with the brand: They were turning into seniors, and re-branding was GM’s unsuccessful attempt to capture a younger new market.
In 2000, GM announced it was discontinuing the Oldsmobile line.
- The names did not match the look and personality of the car
- They removed the name “Oldsmobile”
- Trying to appeal to “youthful” buyers with a staid, respectable design
- Not factoring in what was working for the Oldsmobile brand’s direct competition
5. When Cultural Differences Collide
And then there are countless examples of companies failing to be aware of cultural differences in their potential markets. This resulted in good taglines and brand names turning out to be nightmare faux pas.
Let’s look at Nike, who called a trainer line “Black and Tans” in honor of St. Patrick’s Day – apparently unaware that as well as referring to the famous Guinness ale, this was also the name of a loathed British mercenary paramilitary sect brought in by the Irish Constabulary.
These mercenaries were famed for their brutality, which culminated in the infamous “Bloody Sunday”. Emotions were further triggered by a hard-hitting movie produced by Irish director, Ken Loach.
Nike apologized, but the damage was done. The faux pas circulated online and off.
An article in The Guardian chronicles further examples of this type of mistake; some of them (like Reebok unbelievably calling its own trainer line, “Incubus”) – absolutely staggering. (An incubus is, by any definition, a demon that sexually assaults sleeping women).
And what do all the companies making this type of mistake have in common?
- Failing to do “due diligence” and check every angle
- Failing to check basic facts
- Failing to check other cultures for conflicts
What can we learn from these giants and their branding mistakes? Quite a lot!
- Respect brand values
- Never make assumptions
- Don’t base present branding decisions on past success models
- Check every detail from every angle
- Branding mistakes can happen to anyone: Big or small
And even if you’re a newbie sole proprietor, do have another set of objective eyes check out your pet slogan proposals, website names, ads and photos.
You may not yet be a millionaire.
But you’ll be smarter than our examples today!